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Reply To: Why I Disagree with Joe Campbell


James writes

But more and more I keep finding myself questioning: ‘is what I’m saying and thinking a reflection of what I truly think and feel; or are these things echo’s from Joseph’s influence?'”

When I first read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and even more so when I viewed the six episodes of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, my mind was blown. I would find myself enthusiastically nodding in agreement – not because Joseph Campbell announced new truths I had never heard before, proclaiming “This is the way; walk ye therefore in it!” (like the the biblical dogma pounded into me as a child).

My wonder and joy and agreement wasn’t because what Campbell said was received with the force of revelation; rather, I was enraptured  because here was someone clearly and concisely saying what I had long held to be true, understandings I had arrived at on my own and held inside. Joe’s gift is that he was able to articulate what I knew to be true but had so far been unable to put into words – which seems a sentiment shared by many many many Campbellophiles.

Of course I went through a phase of unqualified acceptance; truth be told, I still have a tendency to believe most criticism of Campbell comes from those not fully familiar with his work, and so my default setting when it comes to criticism is to try to understand what the specific criticism is and what prompted it, then plumb Campbell’s work to see if the way his work is being portrayed is what he actually believed, or a projection from his critic (e.g., those who, like Brendan Gill, believe “follow your bliss” is a prescription for lazy hedonism, rather than advice to engage in the difficult of work of discovering who one really is and what one truly seeks).

Over time, I have found areas where Campbell and I are not in complete agreement – such as his original conception of what the mythological role of women should be today (at the same time, I do understand where he is coming from, and acknowledge that his perception evolved and matured over the course of his life).

But most areas of disagreement are in areas outside the field of myth. I disagree with his stance as WWII erupted that this war was no business of ours – but then, today we have the advantage of knowing facts not in evidence to him at the time (such as the horrors of the Holocaust); similarly, I disagree with his support of Richard Nixon’s actions in Cambodia (which, especially the secret bombings, I view as an impeachable offense) and his opposition to protests of the Vietnam War, his animus toward the New York Times, his dislike of Democrats in general, and what I feel is an unfortunate misreading of the emergence of the counterculture in the Sixties and early Seventies.

But all those are personal peccadilloes and political stances; what is refreshing is how much of that he managed to keep separate from his work in the field of myth.